Take-Charge Obama Shows Up For Second Debate

Two weeks ago, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was seen as the clear winner of that debate. A very different President Obama showed up for the second debate. He went hard after his Republican opponent from the very start.

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The pundits' reaction to last night's presidential debate was sharply different than the first.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Sullivan, a President Obama supporter, pronounced the debate a victory for his candidate. That's a big change from the first meeting, when Sullivan had a virtual meltdown and pronounced the election all but lost.

INSKEEP: A more conservative writer, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, quipped: Obama stopped the liberal hand-wringing, so that's a victory. Otherwise, he said, it was a draw. Of course, you can't really tell the morning after what effect a debate will really have on the central question: how Americans will vote. That will be decided in the days ahead, as Americans listen again to the arguments and talk them over and have their own debates as the campaigns go on.

Let's listen now along with NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: After his widely panned performance at the first debate, everyone was watching to see if the president would bring something different last night. There were also concerns that the format, taking questions from regular citizens, would hobble him, making attacks come off as rude. So with much anticipation, question one came from 20-year-old college student Jeremy Epstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

JEREMY EPSTEIN: All I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. Can - what can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?

GONYEA: Things started politely enough. Governor Romney, by virtue of a pre-debate coin toss, answered first.

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MITT ROMNEY: Your question is one that's being asked by college kids all over this country. I was in Pennsylvania with someone who'd just graduated. This was in Philadelphia, and she said: I - I've got my degree. I can't find a job. I've got three part-time jobs.

GONYEA: Romney continued...

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ROMNEY: With half of college kids graduating this year without a college - excuse me, without a job and without a college-level job, that's just unacceptable. And likewise, you've got more and more debt on your back. So more debt and less jobs. I'm going to change that. I know what it takes to create good jobs again.

GONYEA: Then it was the president's turn. He, too, started in friendly, conversational tones.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Jeremy, first of all, your future is bright, and the fact that you're making an investment in higher education is critical.

GONYEA: But in the two minutes allotted for responses, he quickly went on the attack.

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OBAMA: You know, when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt, I said, we're going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry, and it's come surging back. I want to do that in industries, not just in Detroit, but all across the country.

GONYEA: The moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, turned to Romney for rebuttal.

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ROMNEY: And I know he keeps saying: You wanted to take Detroit bankrupt. Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did. And - and I think it's important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended, and ultimately what happened.

GONYEA: Then it was Mr. Obama's turn again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

OBAMA: Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open, and we would have lost a million jobs. And that - don't take my word for it. Take the executives at GM and Chrysler, some of whom are Republicans, may even support Governor Romney. But they'll tell you his prescription wasn't going to work.

GONYEA: Each had answered the original question. Each had gotten a rebuttal. But as the moderator turned to the next citizen questioner, Romney jumped in, wanting to respond yet again. She cut him off, but it was clearly going to be a bumpy night.

The two men argued over energy prices, the high cost of gasoline. The president cited increased global demand. He said domestic oil production is up, and that making more efficient cars will lower people's gas bills by saving fuel. Romney countered with statistics, portraying the president as an obstacle to oil, coal and natural gas production.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I don't think anyone really believes that you're a person who's going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal. You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking.

OBAMA: Well, Governor...

ROMNEY: My - and the answer is: I don't believe people think that's the case, because I - I'm...

OBAMA: If - if you're asking me a question, I'm going to answer it.

ROMNEY: That wasn't a question.

OBAMA: OK. All right.

ROMNEY: That was a statement. I don't think the American people believe that.

GONYEA: On the topic of taxes, Romney again defended his tax plan, which includes across-the-board reductions in tax rates and the elimination of still-unspecified tax write-offs that Romney says would not result in any increase in the deficit or in the taxes paid by the middle class.

The president cites independent studies showing the Romney tax plan's math doesn't work.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

OBAMA: Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend seven or $8 trillion, and then we're going to pay for it, but we can't tell you until maybe after the election how we're going to do it, you wouldn't have taken such a sketchy deal.

GONYEA: Candy Crowley asked Romney if he'd look at changes to his proposal once in office if the numbers don't add up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Of course they add up. I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. I ran the state of Massachusetts as a governor - to the extent any governor does - and balanced the budget all four years.

GONYEA: But he did not offer any more specifics on his tax plan. And then there came the topic of Romney's overseas investments.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Any investments I have over the last years have been managed by a blind trust, and I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in Chinese companies. Mr. President, have you looked your pension?

OBAMA: Candy...

ROMNEY: Have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: ...I've got to say...

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long.

ROMNEY: Well, let me give you some - let me give you some advice.

OBAMA: I don't check it that often.

GONYEA: It was the kind of comeback the president never delivered in their first debate. Near the end, the candidates turned to last month's attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The story out of the White House has evolved and changed over the past several weeks. Governor Romney accused the president of describing the attack as a spontaneous uprising rather than terrorism for political reasons. The president disagreed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

OBAMA: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we were going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.

GONYEA: Romney immediately challenged the president's characterization of those remarks in the Rose Garden.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I want to make sure to get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

GONYEA: The president did use the word terror in his statement in the Rose Garden, as Candy Crowley noted last night, adding that others in the administration had also offered other explanations. The debate had already gone past the scheduled 90 minutes when the final question came. A man asked the two candidates about misperceptions people have about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I think the president's campaign has tried to characterize me as someone who is very different than who I am. I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids.

GONYEA: Romney's answer was his last of the night, and it sounded like a closing statement. But President Obama used his to launch one final attack, knowing he was getting the last word, bringing up the hidden camera recording of Romney at a fundraiser early in the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

OBAMA: But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refused personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives, veterans who've sacrificed for this country.

GONYEA: With that, time had run out for this debate and grown very short for the campaign itself. The third and final debate is next Monday. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Hempstead, New York.

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